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He arrived at his own airfield at the busiest time of
the day, when it was working to its utmost capacity, as it
did every day during that hectic spring.
The roar of engines did not cease for a moment. The
place in the air of one squadron that landed for refuelling
was taken by another, and that by a third. Everybody,
from the airmen to the petrol-tank drivers and store-
keepers, worked until they dropped. The Chief of Staff
had lost his voice and could now speak only in hoarse
But notwithstanding the intense activity and the general
tension, everybody had been eagerly looking forward to
Meresyev's arrival.
"Hasn't he come yet?" the pilots had shouted to the
mechanics above the roar of their engines even before
they had taxied to their caponiers.
"Anything heard of him?" the "petrol magnates" had
inquired as they taxied their petrol carriers to the tanks
buried in the ground.
And everybody had strained his ears to hear whether
the sounds of the familiar wing Red Cross plane were
coming from over the woods.
When Alexei came to and found himself lying on a
springy, swaying stretcher, he saw a close ring of familiar
faces around him. He opened his eyes. Exclamations of
joy went up from the crowd. Right next to the stretcher
he saw the youthful, immobile face and restrained smile
of the Wing Commander. Next to it he saw the red and
perspiring face of the Chief of Staff, and the round, full,
pale face of tihe Commander of the M.C.B.—Maintenance
Crew Battalion—whom Alexei detested for his formalism
and stinginess. How many familiar faces! The front
stretcher-bearer was Yura, who stumbled every time he
turned his head to look at Alexei. Next to him hurried
a little red-haired girl, the sergeant at the meteorological
station. Before, Alexei had imagined that she disliked
him for some reason; she had tried to keep out of his sight
and had stealthily watched him with a strange look in
her eyes. He called her in jest the "meteorological